All of us were deeply saddened by the recent and untimely death of Meet The Press host and political journalist Tim Russert. "How can this have happened?" many people have asked. According to all accounts, including those by his own personal physician, Tim was doing everything right. He did have coronary artery disease and high cholesterol, but was religious about taking his medications regularly, exercising, and, in fact, had passed an exercise stress test 2 months ago. Indeed, Tim had exercised the morning of his death.
This unfortunate incident highlights an important tenet of trying to stay healthy, eat right and exercise- every little bit helps to decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease, but does not eliminate it. According to the autopsy, Russert died of a blood clot that formed in a major artery supplying blood to his heart. The clot blocked blood flow which caused the electrical impulses of the heart to go haywire leading to a rhythm known as "ventricular fibrillation". Basically, the heart jiggles like a bowl of jello instead of uniform contractions causing blood to flow. Ventricular fibrillation does not allow for effective pumping of blood to the brain or rest of the body, and if not stopped (i.e. via electric shock delivered by a defibrillator) leads to irreversible brain damage and death in minutes.
Does this mean that working out, eating right and trying to do the right things is a waste of time? Not at all! Studies still show that eating a low fat, high fiber diet and getting regular exercise 3-4 times or more per week, decreases the likelihood for major cardiovascular problems and diabetes. That's pretty indisputable at this point. We'll always hear of people who worked out, ate great, took their vitamins, ate their spinach and fell victim to some illness or malady. Similarly, someone always gloats about their 95 year old grandmother who smoked 2 packs of cigarettes per day, never saw the doctor had bacon and eggs for breakfast everyday and was "never sick a day in her life".
However, what we all must realize, is that for every one of those cases, there are likely many other individuals who do all the right things and have been able to prevent illness and prolong their lives as well as the fatty food eating smoking diabetics who've had heart attacks before the age of 50.. Those studies I alluded to earlier have looked at the science. Medical and health science is unfortunately not an exact science of absolutes. It's more like a numbers game- trying to make the worst possible outcome more and more unlikely (but not impossible) with each step. Who knows if Russert would have lived as long as he did had he not done the right things? If you are concerned about your risk profile, visit your primary care provider and have a complete physical.
Just like fastening your seatbelt when you get in your car doesn't guarantee against death or injury by motor vehicle accident, adopting a healthy lifestyle does not guarantee against catastrophic illness. However, I don't know about you, but I'm sure as hell going to buckle my seatbelt when I get in my car and go to the gym tomorrow.